Healing the Soul: Religion and Mental Health | Blog
Holding on to the rope of Allah when we feel we can’t hold on.
I remember watching my son amble up the jungle gym packed in his snowsuit, while I chatted with my friend one winter morning during a playdate. I had been telling my friend that our research at Yaqeen had uncovered how intertwined mental health and religiosity are in the life of a Muslim. Religiosity and mental health are so linked that when a Muslim experiences mental health issues, it is likely they will also experience a dip in their faith. The converse also holds true: when the believer undergoes tests in their iman, they will likely at the same time experience mental health issues. Religiosity and mental health seem inextricably wound together. As parents, we are deeply concerned about how we can raise our children so they can have a fighting chance to hold on to their faith. This faith-mental health connection means that nurturing our children’s mental health is also critical to safeguarding their faith.
I squinted at my friend in the winter sunlight as she pushed her daughter on the swing, hoping that had made sense. As scientists, we are painfully aware that the work we do often becomes so abstract and indiscernible that we fumble when trying to explain the real-world application of our research. After listening intently, my friend said, “That makes complete sense. It’s like you want to hold on to the rope of Allah but your hands are slippery.”
The turbulent heart
I marveled at how beautifully my friend had captured the crux of the message. When we face mental health issues, our hands do indeed become slippery. Whether it’s our worries that distract us in prayer, depression that makes it difficult for us to see the world with gratitude, or deep grief that can make us lose hope in Allah’s mercy—our emotional state deeply impacts our ability to commune with our Lord. We are emotional beings, and the word motion is in the word “emotion” for a reason. Our emotional state is in constant flux. While we may not display our emotions so readily, we certainly witness that turbulence of emotion within our children, who can shift from having a full-blown meltdown, screaming, “You’re the WORST mom ever!!” to smothering us with hugs and kisses, all in a matter of seconds. As our beloved Prophet ﷺ once said,
“The heart of the son of Adam is more inconsistent than boiling water” [Al-Jami’ Al-Saghir #7282].
Amid this constant emotional turmoil, naturally holding onto the rope of Allah becomes challenging. Indeed, our Prophet ﷺ was acutely aware of this constant state of motion, and the most oft-repeated du’a on his ﷺ lips was,
“O Turner of Hearts, make my heart firm on your path” [Jami’ At-Tirmidhi #4522].
Seeking the Healer
It is easy in this secular world to find comfort or understanding in mainstream outlets—a novel that makes us weep or a movie that stirs our hearts. A simple Google search can yield dozens of mainstream mental health services, therapists, and sources of beneficial knowledge who offer to guide us through the psychological turmoil we are facing. But for the believer, if mental health and religiosity are inextricably woven together, then this therapeutic journey will have something critical missing. As believers, we need to tie the healing of our soul to our Lord, our Cherisher and Guide. When we divorce the healing of our soul from our Rabb, we enter murky terrain because we take our Healer out of the equation. In the same way, when the upbringing (tarbiya) of our children is devoid of warmth and emotional nurturing, our children may find their iman on shaky ground. Inability to process personal trauma is one of the most common pathways to crises of faith for Muslims and overly strict teaching of faith can lead to harboring doubt. As parents, we need to arm our children with the tools of emotional regulation and resilience while we impart the lessons of our deen. This is critical so they can navigate the difficult questions in life and face loss, while still nurturing their iman and mental health. Finding meaning in our suffering—our deep conviction that Allah has a greater plan for us—is one of the most profound sources of solace for us as believers that helps us hold on to our faith even when our hands get slippery.
The central role of religiosity in Muslim mental health
This means that when we face emotional turmoil and mental health issues, seeking care options that nurture both our mental health and spiritual well-being may be the most beneficial. In our study, we found that religiosity was the best predictor of positive mental health outcomes like life purpose, life satisfaction, and well-being. The other predictors like, age, gender, and education were significant, but didn’t come close to the impact of religiosity. Islamically-integrated mental health care can speak not only to the psychological turmoil we are facing, but also get to our spiritual heart—the beating heart of the believer.
Hiding in the shadows: Muslim doubt
Similarly, when a believer faces a crisis in their faith, they will also likely struggle with their mental health. These crises of faith affect the best of us. A companion once came to the Prophet ﷺ and said, “O Messenger of Allah! One of us has thoughts of such nature that he would rather be reduced to charcoal than speak about them." The Prophet replied,
“Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Praise be to Allah Who has reduced the evil of the devil to only suggestions and whisperings” [Sunan Abī Dāwūd #5112].
Our deen is so merciful that it recognizes that having religious doubts and not improperly acting upon them is a sign of clear faith (iman) and our merciful Lord rewards us for the discomfort we feel over those doubts. We are also given practical instruction to deal with our doubts by saying, “Amantu billah” (I believe in Allah) and to remind ourselves that doubts are just evidence of Shaytan’s persistence, rather than a sign of our own wickedness.
However, many of us feel so ashamed of our doubts and questions that we would rather stumble in darkness than seek help. It was only when I found myself in an alamiyyah program with access to scholars every week that I finally gained the courage to approach one of my teachers to help me through an existential crisis. We need to close the gap between ourselves and our teachers. We cannot have people feeling like they don’t have anyone to turn to. In the same way, our children will also struggle with religious doubts. Just the other day, my son stubbed his toe and lamented, “Why does Allah make me get hurt?!” Evidently, even for a child, personal trauma is a pathway to doubt. The number one factor in our homes related to cultivating “sticky faith”—the kind of iman that we hold on to for dear life even through all of life’s storms—is open communication, where our kids can come to us with their religious doubts and not have them shut down.1,2 When we cannot address them adequately, we can role model healthy help-seeking by taking our child’s question to an imam or religious scholar and continuously seeking knowledge ourselves.
The need for deep connection
If a symbiotic relationship exists between religiosity and mental health, then this means that we need to teach our children (and us adults) how to emotionally connect with the Qur'an and our deen. As Muhammad Iqbal’s father once said to him,
“Son! Whenever you recite the Qur’an, do so as if it is being revealed to your heart. By reading the Qur’an like this, it will soon permeate your very being.”3
This deep emotional-spiritual connection is what will bond us to our Lord. This beautiful conversation between a father and his son also points to how we as parents can help our children nurture this emotional connection to the Word of Allah. Without this critical piece, the dry teaching of our faith will lead to a generation who will not find solace in their faith, who will look anywhere and everywhere else for meaning and comfort. A generation for whom faith becomes irrelevant, because when hardship hits, as it inevitably will, their faith will not be there to console them.
Working together moving forward
I don't know about you, but I certainly wasn't taught my faith this way. And if this continues, we risk losing our youth, raising a generation who cannot taste the sweetness of faith because it fails to stir their soul. As I watched my son and my friend’s daughter build a snowman together, I considered how working together is the only way to move forward for imams and religious scholars and mental health professionals. It is only through this bridging and collaboration, where imams and religious scholars work in tandem with mental health professionals, that we can ensure the mental health and spiritual well-being of a believer in crisis. All the educators involved in our children’s Islamic upbringing, from Islamic school teachers to the weekend Qur’an teacher at the masjid and Muslim children’s media, need to be a part of this conversation as well. The thoughtful imparting of our deen to our children, which fosters their spiritual and emotional growth, will allow their faith to flourish long after we’re gone.
Our hands will get slippery. We will face trials in life that will bring us to our knees. In those moments, we may feel distant from our Lord, and this alienation from the Divine will make our hearts shatter. As Muslims we need to take hold of all the tools in our arsenal to draw close to our Rabb. Through thoughtful spiritual and psychological counseling, we as believers can find an integration of our spiritual and emotional selves so we can firmly grasp the rope of Allah once again.
To learn more about the connection between religiosity and mental health, read our study Faith in Mind: Islam’s Role in Mental Health
1 Powell, K., & Clark, C. (2011). Sticky faith: Everyday ideas to build lasting faith in your kids. Zondervan.
2 Ibn Mas’ud RA also asked for “sticky faith” when he beautifully supplicated for “faith that never wavers”
اللهم إني أسألُك إيمانًا لا يرتدُّ ونعيمًا لا ينفَدُ ومرافقةَ محمدٍ في أعلى جنةِ الخُلدِ
“O Allah I ask you for unwavering iman (faith) and endless bliss and the company of Muhammad SAW in the highest eternal paradise.”
3 Sayyid Nazir Niyazi, Iqbal kay Huzur, trans. Ahmed Afzaal (Lahore: Iqbal Academy, 1971), 60–61.